Alkali Flats Trail, White Sands National Monument

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The longest and most challenging trail at White Sands National Monument also provides you with the best and most intimate experience with the dunes.  The Alkali Flats Trail is a 4.4 mile loop route that begins and ends at the far end of the park road.

Alkali Flats Trail, White Sands National Monument New Mexico

The path (ok, there’s no real path, just a rough route that follows markers in the sand) takes you to the western edge of the dunes, and onto the wide-open alkali flats.

Dunes and San Andres Mountains, White Sands National Monument New Mexico

Beyond the sand dunes, and on the other side of the alkali flats, are the San Andres Mountains.  They provide a beautiful, harsh backdrop to contrast with the soft appearance of the sand.

Hardened Stone Sand  Dune, White Sands National Monument New Mexico

Not all of the sand is soft, though.  In some places, the dunes have drifted away, exposing the hard, sandstone floor.  Above, you can see one small dune that hardened over time.

The dunes at White Sands are made of gypsum, which is a rare form of sand. Since gypsum dissolves in water, it’s rare to find large quantities in one place.  But since no river drains the Tularosa Basin, the gypsum stays put.

Alkali Flats Trail Marker, White Sands National Monument

As the sand shifts, some of the markers end up almost buried in the sand.  Normally, even if one is missing, you can scan the horizon and find the next one, then plan your route.

White Sands National Monument New Mexico

As you head deeper into the dunes, you leave almost all signs of plant life behind.  While it appears this plant died long ago, its root system was strong enough to keep a former dune from blowing away completely.

Sand Dune, White Sands National Monument New Mexico

It seems almost every dune provides a good picture.  If you travel the path early in the day, you’ll find much of the area unspoiled by footprints.  During my visit, it was obvious only one person had walked the trail before me.

San Andres Mountains, Alkali Flats, White Sands National Monument

As you approach the alkali basin, the dunes abruptly end.


At the edge of the dunes, an incredibly vast expanse opens before you.

Military Base at White Sands National Monument New Mexico

The only thing on the horizon, aside from the San Andres Mountains, is a military base, and its water tower.

Hardened Sand, White Sands National Monument New Mexico

At the edge of the dunes, the sandy floor forms tiny waves of hardened gypsum.

Dunes and Mountains, White Sands National Monument New Mexico

One more look back at the mountains.

Dune, White Sands National Monument New Mexico

As you (finally!) close in on the trailhead, after about two hours of hiking up and down dunes, you’ll see a few signs of plant life shooting up through the sand.  Some of the trail markers also show you how many miles you’ve walked.

The Alkali Flats Trail wasn’t as difficult as I feared.  Most of the sand is hard-packed, and unless a dune is steep, you can hike up the side without causing a mini-sandslide.  There are only a few places where you’ll need to climb to the top of a steep dune, most of the time, the trail either goes around them, or runs along the top of the dunes. Even so, this is a difficult trail, if only because of its length, and the intensity of the sun.  Bring plenty of water, and prepare for at least a 2-hour hike.

Note: This trip was first published in 2006.

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